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Does Napa Have Terroir?

Debates about terroir are as hot as ever, especially when it comes to California. My big question is always: Do wines from individual vineyards display a distinctive sense of place in, say, Napa Valley?

It doesn’t help that Napa produces hundreds of wines made by producers who are all over the map in their approach to winemaking.

So when I had a chance to sample 63 wines made from Stagecoach Vineyard grapes, I grabbed it. On the basis of rocks, exposure, altitude, microclimates and volcanic soils, this is surely one of the valley’s most distinctive sites. Would the wines reflect that — and the subtleties of its soil and topography?

A diverse landscape

Stagecoach vineyardLast fall, I’d bumped over the long rough road up to the vines in owner Dr. Jan Krupp’s Toyota Land Cruiser, getting an on-the-ground perspective of this massive 1,400-acre property, which now sells grapes to 55 wineries. Among them are big names like Caymus, Pahlmeyer, Blackbird, Paul Hobbs and Bordeaux consultant Stephane Derenoncourt’s new Derenoncourt California label. Despite prices of up to $15,000 a ton in a recession year, Krupp said he had a waiting list for some varieties.

As we stood on a hill of red dirt next to a pile of huge boulders with a view to San Francisco, Krupp filled me in on what it took to plant the now 600 acres under vine. Others had coveted this high remote rocky land on the east side of the valley, about a third in the Atlas Peak appellation, the rest in the Pritchard Hill area, but gave up. There was no legal access and no water, or so they thought.

The geologists Krupp hired couldn’t find any, but a water witch located an underground river. Then came the 135 legal documents, moving a half million tons of rock, some now dumped in steep piles, others ground up in crushers for the road carved out of volanic soil and chaparral.

Starting in 1995, Krupp planted 13 grape varieties here, the majority of the site in Bordeaux varietals. “The land has great sun exposure, but the altitude — 900 to 1,800 feet — means it’s cooler than the valley floor in summer,” Krupp said, adding that red volcanic soils are thin, which stresses the vines.

Fast forward to late spring. Krupp has hosted an annual barrel sample tasting with the winemakers who use his grapes since 2000.  “It’s a way for me to assess who’s doing the vineyard justice as a winemaker, and what the quality of the grapes are,” he tells me. He now previews finished wines before letting any winery put Stagecoach Vineyard on the label.

Top reds reveal answers

At 9 a.m., winemakers in jeans and T-shirts are gathered on the balcony at Cole’s Chop House in Napa, where tables hold lines of glasses for the seven flights of wines from the 2009 vintage. I consult the two-page map with each block marked, as Krupp remarks on the vineyard’s diversity — conditions on the northern edge are different from the southern, there are steep slopes vs. flat areas, and differences in altitude and exposure. The sheet for each flight gives a wine’s vineyard block number, picking date, alcohol level, pH, total acidity and type of oak used.

(My taste buds sink as I notice only one wine below 14 percent alcohol and 39 at 15 percent or above, but I keep sipping and swirling.)

Though Stagecoach is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, we’re sampling everything else — a few whites, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Syrah even a lone Tempranillo experiment.

It’s the top reds that seem to show a sense of place.

In the best Merlots, Cabernet Francs and Syrahs I pick up a dark, dense mountain character and a power, intensity and complex earthiness I associate with volcanic soil. I’m struck by differences. The soft supple texture and blackberry fruit of the Blackbird Merlot contrasts with the intense iron and earth flavor in the Derenoncourt, which has a heavy overlay of wood. The two plots, far apart, clearly have very different microclimates — and express it.

Four of the seven Cabernet Francs impress with their intense aromas, ripe, juicy, slightly earthy flavors and smooth supple textures. Most minerally is the Derenoncourt, which is austere, powerful, and very supple, while the Blackbird has more brightness and length. Maybe Stagecoach is one of the spots in Napa for this very underrated grape.

Syrah may have a future here, too. Krupp says Rhone Valley star Chapoutier suggested this was a site for Syrah 12 years ago. Examples are spicy, peppery and mostly fairly balanced. Interestingly, a Krupp Brothers sample from a south-facing slope shows more distinctive character and finer texture than another from a more northern block. The balanced Miner Family, with its bright grapiness and floral nose, and made with native yeasts and only 35 percent new oak, was the winner for me.

So do the wines reflect Stagecoach’s terroir? Well, yes and no. First of all, it’s a big place. But what strikes me is that in many wines the amount of oak, high alcohol and big extraction masks any taste of place. I’m wondering what some would taste like if they hadn’t added water, or used commercial yeast, wood chips (only one admitted to this) or aimed for maximum extraction.

But clearly the land here is distinctive and that comes through in well-made wine. I’m not surprised that the best winemakers, like Aaron Pott, who makes Blackbird, manage to coax out real character from Stagecoach’s soil.  Alas, others, as in so many parts of California, are busy covering it up.

Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

Photos, top and right: Stagecoach vineyards.
Credit, top: Studio-707. Credit, right: Elin McCoy.